April 6, 2013 7:30 PM
Vernon Cook Theater
Clinton High School
Only after he came under the financial patronage of young King Ludwig II of Bavaria did Richard Wagner (1813-1883) see a lasting upturn in his prospects. Ludwig had come to an excessive admiration of Wagner after attending performances of two of Wagner's popular operas, Lohengrin and Tannhäuser as a fifteen year old. These operas appealed to the Romantic-fantastic sensibilities of the boy, who would later earn the sobriquet der Märchenkönig, the Fairy Tale King, for his lavish spending on architectural and art projects.
For many of the years leading to his residency with the Munich monarch, Wagner had moved from one city to another, from one prospect to another, living in poverty, acquiring debt, joining revolutionary movements, experiencing exile, and leaving behind him broken lives and fortunes, forlorn lovers, and angry creditors. Soon after the eighteen-year-old Ludwig assumed the throne in April 1864, he sent for Wagner and granted the composer an unusual audience that lasted nearly two hours. In commenting on Ludwig following the meeting, Wagner wrote, "Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely, that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods." In May, Wagner moved to Munich to become composer-in-residence to the king.
Ludwig gave Wagner a clean slate on which to write his fortune: He paid off the composer's outstanding debts, and made the monarchy a partner in the proposed productions of Wagner's new operas including the upcoming Tristan und Isolde, Die Meistersinger and the complete Der Ring des Nibelungen cycle. Wagner began at once to mount a production of Tristan und Isolde, his first new work in nearly fifteen years. At the same time, he began an indiscreet affair with Cosima von Bülow, the daughter of Franz Liszt and wife of the noted conductor Hans von Bülow. Both endeavors bore fruit the following year. After months of delay, Tristan und Isolde premiered in Munich under Bülow's direction on June 10, 1865. Earlier, in April, Cosima gave birth to Wagner's daughter, Isolde.
All of Munich were aware of the scandalous affair, and Wagner and Cosima fell into disfavor among the city elders. At the same time, several members of the king's court became suspicious of the composer's influence on the young ruler and lobbied for Wagner's dismissal. After these accusations and suspicions came to a head in December 1865, Ludwig felt forced to ask Wagner to leave Munich. Some scholars speculate that Ludwig offered to abdicate his throne and follow Wagner into exile, but, to his credit, Wagner persuaded the emotional king to renounce that idea.
Ludwig continued to support Wagner and Cosima in exile at a villa in Switzerland overlooking Lake Lucerne from 1866 through 1872. True to his word, Wagner obliged the king by premiering his new works in Munich. Those works included the premiere of the first work he completed at Villa Triebschen, Die Meistersinger in 1868, and special performances of the first two operas in the Ring cycle, Das Rheingold (1869) and Die Walküre (1870).
Wagner's first wife Minna had died in Dresden in 1866, but Cosima's attempts to get Bülow to agree to a divorce were for naught until Cosima gave birth to two additional children, Eva and Siegfried. A Berlin court finalized the divorce in July 1870, and Richard and Cosima were married on August 25.
The Siegfried Idyll, one of Richard Wagner's few non-operatic works, is a symphonic poem lasting approximately 14 minutes for chamber orchestra. Wagner composed it as a birthday present to Cosima, after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. It was first performed on the morning of Christmas day (Cosima's birthday) in 1870 by a small ensemble on the stairs of their villa at Triebschen in the Canton of Lucerne, Switzerland; Cosima awoke to its opening melody. Today, it is often performed by orchestras.
Its original title was Triebschen Idyll with Fidi's birdsong and the orange sunrise. "Fidi" was the pet version of the name Siegfried. It is thought that the birdsong and the sunrise refer to incidents of personal significance to the couple.